Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

At 555 pages, this novel, inspired by the life of Laura Bush, is quite an undertaking, in more ways than one. The original four Literary Wives bloggers — Angela, Ariel, Audra, and Emily — have reviewed the book with more insight than I’ll be able to muster, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts.

American Wife

First, some highlights, passage-wise, for me:

  • Alice’s love for the Midwest: “It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on” (53).
  • “When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy” (58).
  • The passage about Alice and Charlie during the tornado warning (193-96); Alice and Charlie are from Wisconsin, and Ms. Sittenfield, like yours truly, is a native of Ohio. I live outside Boston now, and the Boston-born didn’t have tornado drills growing up, and are always amused at the description I provide. But I’ve never been really close to  a tornado, and I have no desire to be, ever. Sidebar here: Immediately read Catherine Pierce’s amazing poem “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”
  • “I have always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot beause I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (223).
  • I can’t find the page, but I liked the way Alice recognized a single woman based on what she was buying at the grocery store — yogurt and apples (though I have to say, I bought my fair share of hamburger as a single woman. Spaghetti is always the right answer to “What should I make for dinner?”). The novel is full of nice little details like this.
  • Almost any passage involving Alice’s grandmother.
  • “But I should note, for all my resistance to organized religion, that I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it. It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along” (429-30).

I found Alice, the main character, both intriguing and infuriating, both a product of her time and well ahead of it.

I think Alice’s nods to her privileged existence (when she’s at the pool with Jadey, when she’s thinking about the war at the novel’s end) were cursory, but I couldn’t tell if this is a fault in Alice’s thinking or the author’s failing. Sure, Alice is charitable and cares about others less fortunate than she, but she allows her values to be completely overshadowed by her husband’s. It’s as if Alice disappears, and I didn’t feel Ms. Sittenfield provided a satisfactory explanation for Alice’s weak attempt to explain herself (sorry, “they elected him, not me” doesn’t cut it). At the very least, as a citizen, she should feel free to express her views to her husband.

(Please note: I’m not judging Laura Bush here, because I don’t have the access to the interior self that Sittenfeld provides us for Alice. And literacy rules.)

Despite my frustration, I thought the book was excellent, and as I went along, I began to think that maybe the unresolved ambiguities in Alice’s thoughts and behavior are meant to be inscrutable; after all, how much do we really know about our neighbors’ marriages, or about our own? How much do we want to admit to ourselves?

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12 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. I’m so glad to know that you liked this too. I picked up a copy from a library sale a couple of weeks ago and I’m looking forward to reading it. I loved Sittenfeld’s Prep but haven’t yet read anything by her.

  2. “No one knows the truth of a marriage except husband and wife” – The Aviator’s Wife (I think). I loved that book for many reasons, but one was that Alice’s actions don’t always make sense, and mine don’t either. Marriage is hard, and everyone’s going to deal with it differently.

    • I think it’s easy to judge a marriage from the outside (though not at all a good idea), but you’re right — only the two people in a marriage (however they define their genders) know what the marriage is to them.

  3. To me this is by far the best of Sittenfeld’s books. Before I read it, I was intrigued by the fact that this was a novel loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. I’ve read a fair amount about the Bush clan, and I was interested to find out how this would shake out. Short answer–I LOVED IT! I think that it would be enjoyable even without any of the background knowledge of the life of Laura Bush and the rest of the Bush family–but if you have any knowledge at all about the lives of the Bushes, it makes this book even more fascinating.

  4. Pingback: Recommended Reading: David Gilbert’s & Sons | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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